Tijuana escaped the worst of the hurricane, thankfully. While it blew effortlessly across the border from Baja into California, sadly it’s not as easy for asylum seekers seeking to cross that same border to begin a new life in the United States.
Friday Afternoon, August 25
The struggle was never more apparent than with a family from Somalia. Javier met the mom with her three children, two teenage girls and a boy about 11, late this afternoon. Here they were, the mom and daughters in niqabs (face veils covering all but the eyes) and abayas (long loose black dresses), wandering in El Chaparral, hot, tired, and obviously lost. Javier said their eyes were so sad. The mom spoke only Arabic. The son explained in a few English words that they had been walking for four months.
The boy kept saying over and over how tired they were. Javier said they were all full of bruises, bites, and bleeding scratches, their clothes muddy and torn. Once we heard they went through the Darien Gap, it told us all we needed to know. [Note: For anyone who is unfamiliar with the treacherous 66-mile route through the Panamanian jungle called the Darien Gap, please watch Anderson Cooper’s CNN 2023 special, “The Trek: A Migrant Trail to America” available free on YouTube in four parts.]
So much to try to communicate. They had no phone at this point and knew nothing about the CBP One app required for all asylum seekers wishing to cross the border. Unfortunately, the app is only translated into four languages. Arabic is not one of them.
Javier introduced them to me via WhatsApp video as soon as possible, I believe to help them trust him, a single man and perfect stranger no less, who had just invited them into his house. Although they were extremely shy, Javier said the mom communicated very well her frustration at hearing they would probably not be able to cross immediately.
They were hungry, so Javier encouraged them to make some food and eat. Then he took them over to the actual border to see if they might be allowed to cross immediately. They were not, but now the family knew what Javier told them was true. He brought them all back to the house. They made beds on the floor and couch downstairs. He showed them the bathroom downstairs and invited them to take showers, but they declined, perhaps because of modesty and also perhaps because they had no other clothes. The boy said they had not showered in four months. Their feet were in terrible condition from being constantly damp and dirty from walking through mud and muck. They slept in their clothes, but I think they slept well.
Meanwhile, I started trying to find someone who speaks Arabic, so I quickly posted something on Facebook. I love how friends from all over texted and emailed me with suggestions. The daughter of a Eugene friend contacted two of her college friends who spoke Arabic, one of whom had experience in translating documents. By now it was now 10:00 p.m. Javier and I decided to slow everything down, let the family relax and sleep, and connect them to Arabic speakers in the morning.
At 2 a.m. I woke up and began to worry about the difficulties of helping them navigate that CBP One app with someone over the phone, knowing that the tiniest of spelling errors could void everything. And what language would it be in? What would they do then? I found a long YouTube video showing step-by-step in English how to fill out the CBP One form. It was complicated for me just getting to the actual questions! I decided that the best thing the Arabic speakers here could do would be to communicate the importance of finding an Arabic speaker in Tijuana who knows the app to help them. I planned to suggest that to Javier in the morning.
Javier said he was also awake and thinking about them most of the night as well, trying to figure out the best thing to do. He downloaded Google Translate on his phone so he could communicate with them.
Saturday Morning, August 26
The family did sleep well. Before they awoke, Javier walked over to Chaparral to talk to a guard he knows there to see if he had any ideas. He told Javier about a place on the way to Playas (the beach in Tijuana) and said he should call them. Javier said he decided to just take them there, betting that they would not be able to refuse to help if they saw them. He bundled the family into the car and off they went. On the way he bought a cell phone for them.
Our conversation was brief; we were both super tired.
Sunday Morning, August 27
So get this! I thought Javier was taking them to a shelter where there were people who spoke Arabic, but it was even better than that. It was also a mosque! The kids waited in the car while the mom went in to speak to someone. Javier wanted to make sure she felt comfortable there. She asked questions, looked around, and approved, and the kids came in.
He told me he received three WhatsApp messages from her late last night saying THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! (all in caps)! Those brief messages told him she was feeling good and wanted him to know.
He said to me, "It was a blessing for me that I found them." At first I responded, "It was a blessing for THEM to have found YOU!" True for sure, but no, that is not what he meant. Back up. Rewind. Listen again, carefully. These are things I learn from Javier.
He originally thought he would stop by to visit them today to see how they were doing, but this morning he said he decided to wait another day. He explained that by then they would be fully settled in there and happy to tell him all about it.
Monday Morning, August 28
He stopped by today, but the shelter/mosque was closed to visitors at that time. They told him to come back on Tuesday between 11 and 12.
Tuesday Morning, August 29
I just got a video call from Javier. He was outside the building with the family, the women still wearing hijabs but their faces now uncovered. They were all waving and smiling the biggest smiles and saying “Hello!” and “Thank you!” to me over and over. They told Javier they are learning some English at the mosque and that they “want to go to school in the United States and learn more English!”
He noticed they were still wearing the same shoes, so with their enthusiastic okay, Javier took them all to the shoe store and bought them new tennis shoes and socks. He said they LOVED their new shoes! Things like this, seemingly small things, help people feel human again.
Once tired to the breaking point, today their beautiful, joyful faces said it all. They are in a safe place with people who share their language and culture. Their bodies are clean. Their clothes are clean. They have new shoes!
They have hope.
Javier said they told him they are already signed up on the CBP One app and expect to cross in 2-3 weeks! When they cross the border in a few weeks, they will be much stronger, healthier, more positive, and more ready to meet all the new (and formidable) challenges that await them in the U.S. than if they had crossed immediately.
Like Javier said, it is a blessing for us to have found this family and be present during a small part of their journey.